All politics is local seems to be the unsurprising, yet insightful, finding of the Fabian’s polling of non-voters. If politicians want to encourage people back to the ballot box they need to spend “more time doing good work in my neighbourhood” as opposed to only turning up on the doorstep at election time.
This truth will hearten the thousands of hard working councillors up and down the country and the many MPs who are doing exactly this in their constituencies. But it is also a warning to those who believe that Labour should focus relentlessly on canvassing and campaigning at the expense of the kinds of community organising which many local parties have excelled at for years and which became popular with the rise of Barack Obama four years ago.
Many people go into politics because of a love for big ideas and the grand narrative. Who wouldn’t want a good society or responsible capitalism? Most voters would probably concur if asked but they also want clean streets, to feel safe at night in their community, and to have reliable public services close to home.
Most politicians get this and I suspect that voters’ opinions of their own local representative would probably be better than that of politicians in general. What the Labour party needs to do is ensure that all regions of the country are starting to put this into practice with local parties better able to learn from each other.
Every local Labour party should be organising non-political residents’ meetings at a sub-ward level with local representatives and key public servants, such as senior police officers, head teachers & NHS managers. If held on a regular basis these gatherings can help create real accountability for tackling local problems. Similarly, activists should be encouraging residents to take part in mass energy switching campaigns to get everyone a better deal, as Iain McNicol told Labour conference, or taking petitions to save local hospitals, libraries or transport routes when they go and interrupt voters’ Saturday mornings.
The Fabians’ poll also shows that a third of non-voters think politics is a “game played by an out of touch elite”. Ed Wallis suggests “all local or non-spad shortlists” for selections. I don’t think the idea would work. For a start, how should local be defined? Is someone local if they were born in an area but moved away as a child? What if someone moved into the area six months ago, perhaps to seek selection?
With the exception of All Women’s Shortlists, Labour should keep its selections as open as possible in order to give local members a proper choice. Those that want to experiment, should be able to try primaries to attract a different kind of politician, as has been successful in France and Australia in the last year. But once selected, candidates and MPs should be held to account for the what they do at the local level.
Trust in politicians took a massive hit following the spin associated with Labour’s time in office and the expenses scandal. It won’t have been helped by the Lib Dems’ and Tories’ broken promises in government. But the fact that 24 per cent of non-voters say that they intend to vote at the next election and another 43 per cent could be persuaded is encouraging. Labour must show that it offers a real choice from the other parties – not just at the national level but locally where many voters actually make up their minds.
Will Straw is co-editor of ‘The Change We Need’, published by the Fabian Society. He writes here in a personal capacity.